Watchdog faults FBI for 'widespread' errors handling surveillance warrants

·3 min read
Senate Judiciary hearing on the FBI handling of the Larry Nassar investigation of sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts, in Washington

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department's internal watchdog on Thursday said he had uncovered "widespread non-compliance" with the FBI's domestic surveillance program, dealing the bureau another setback and raising questions about the accuracy of the information underpinning its wiretap warrants.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz's findings mark the latest problem uncovered since 2019, when his office first discovered the FBI had made numerous errors in its warrant applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as part of the early probe into contacts between President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.

Horowitz's report on Thursday entailed an audit of the FBI's so-called "Woods Procedures" - rules the bureau follows to ensure FISA applications to the court are "scrupulously accurate."

"A failure to adhere to the Woods Procedures ... could easily lead to errors that do impact probable cause — and therefore potentially call into question the legal basis for the government’s use of highly intrusive FISA warrants," Horowitz said.

In a statement, National Security Division Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko said the FBI "has already implemented numerous reforms" and that the department is committed to "meet the highest standards of accuracy."

In 2019, the inspector general revealed the FBI had severely botched applications to continue monitoring the communications of Carter Page, a former adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign.

The errors prompted a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge to issue a rare public ruling ordering the FBI to detail how it would correct its policies and procedures.

Horowitz's findings led Special Counsel John Durham to later file charges against FBI Attorney Kevin Clinesmith for falsifying a document used in a FISA application to monitor Page. Clinesmith pleaded guilty in August 2020.

The ACLU, which has long expressed concerns about the FISA process, said in a statement on Thursday that Horowitz's report shows "yet more evidence that FISA surveillance is in need of reform."

The FBI's efforts since the Page debacle "have not gone nearly far enough," ACLU attorney Ashley Gorski said.

Thursday's audit is an extension of an earlier report from Horowitz from March 2020 in which he found 209 errors in 29 applications.

Since then, he said his office had uncovered an additional 200 errors or lack of supporting documents in those applications - and he accused the FBI and the National Security Division of displaying "a tolerance for error."

Jason Jones, the FBI's general counsel, disagreed with that assertion in his response. He said the FBI has implemented reforms and that its "commitment to emphasize the importance of scrupulous accuracy will continue unabated."

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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